The best thing I could do for myself this morning: spin Scary Monsters in the empty classroom before the students arrived, timing “Ashes to Ashes” and “Fashion” just for the moment as the first group of kids came through the doors of A-9. That was a good way to begin. What has felt like a week of Thursdays comes to a close tomorrow at the end of our first full week of what we’re calling the “hybrid” model— google meets in the morning, in-person afternoon classes. My 9th graders are quiet, subdued, maybe somewhat shell-shocked, having been alone for so long, not having to talk, not having to be seen, now suddenly, totally exposed. These are not the 9th graders I’m used to. It’s early, I know, and maybe by the end of the school year they’ll be back to their old selves, and instead of my wishing that they’d talk, I’ll be wishing they’d stop. I hope so. Otherwise, I feel we’d still be learning at a distance, less remote, to be sure, but still that gulf, that silence, those long awkward pauses, which may or may not be pregnant: Ground control to Major Tom– sometimes it’s impossible to tell if anyone is out there.
Remember that nightmare I had about distance learning? Poem #398 for easy reference. Well, that nightmare, or some version of it, was a lived experience for me on my first day back to school for hybrid learning. So here’s a poem on that occasion, unfortunately this time, not a dream but a reality. The kids are alright, by the way.
Poem on April 26
Mistakes were made. For one, on the eve of our return to the school house for the first in-person educational experience in more than 365 days, I fell on my face, cracked my nose open good and proper, scraped and chaffed myself all up one side of my hip, and cut the inside of my wrist. It was stupid–I was wrestling with a stuck dresser drawer, my feet somehow came out from underneath, I lost balance, and the dresser and its drawer got the best of me. Finally able to stop the bleeding and calm myself down enough to relax and sleep, I end up with a solid five hours of rest. Bandaged and masked, I travel this morning to the school house to “teach ’em up,” as we say, one synchronous class online, a prep, and then two in-person hybrid groups of students who have not yet had a full on-line class. And yes, too many tabs were open: the meet, multiple versions of the slides, the role sheet, my email inbox, who knows what else; I had a meet going on for kids who were watching from home and I struggled not to neglect them, and in the process, I neglected them. The lesson, mostly goofy fun stuff some colleagues created and which I agonized over, required lots of teacher speech, and with a banged up nose, some hip pain, and a mask, I was losing my voice and my breath fast. My head spun with all the logistical issues of the day: Can I touch these post-it notes or not? Can I call our tech guy to get extra laptops? Are those two sitting too close together? How do I project this video again? Why does it feel like I’ve been on my feet for four hours? Do I have time to sanitize these desks for the next group to come in? No, I don’t. Can I get to the restroom? No, I can’t. Why was I asked to show a video to students about how the schedule works during the last class at the end of their first full schedule? The school day and the work day are over at the same time. Can I be ready to go home as soon as the students leave my room? No, I can’t. First of all, that’s mentally an impossible task; secondly, it’s physically impossible until the busses exit along with the ensuing traffic jam behind them. Yes, mistakes were made, and not all of them were mine. But I’ve never felt so unprepared and tentative about a first school day, rarely have I ever been as nervous, and never, at the end of it, have I felt so beaten. A colleague of mine texted me that for a moment today she had herself thinking it was Friday. That captures it. It kind of felt like a whole week went by in a day, like this last year has felt like two, like the last four years have felt like eight. I think I’d like for time to start flying again.
I try to imagine how it will go. Let’s say I’ve got 15 or 20 students in the classroom with me. Let’s say I have another 5 to 10 students who are still at home but who would like to partake in the classroom happenings. They call this a simulcast. What it really means, I imagine, is that students at home will be looking at a blank white board on their computer screens. Because my voice might be amplified, they might hear me, disembodied, addressing the students they can’t hear sitting in desks that they can’t see, and even if the audio is swell, what they hear will be decidedly one-sided. If they work really hard they might be able to pick up a full exchange or two. The students at home, every once in a while, might see me move through their screen across the blank white board to get from one side of the room to another. But every now and then, I will probably stop in front of this computer to check in on them, to see if they have questions, to see if they would like to contribute something or share something with the other students in the room. And this explains, in large part, why they don’t want us to deliver new instruction during a simulcast. The students at home would be seriously disadvantaged, even more so than they are in this scenario. I imagine that only the hard core will stick with it and the truth is that right now there’s just no better way outside of hiring a film crew for every teacher. Teachers just have to do more of that miracle stuff they do and that everyone expects, you know, super hero teacher stuff, like being all things to all people and in two places at one time.
Some new habits have already fallen away. For example, I think I went three days in a row without a preamble. Either I found it unnecessary (as it actually should be with poetry), or I just ran out of time or energy or both. But I continue with the continuity of titles or the lack thereof–which is an easy habit to keep up as it requires not a single iota of creativity. Each poem is titled with the day the poem was composed. Easy peasy. Today’s poem does not follow a prompt, but has been coming on for some time. As a teacher, the return to my building, to interact with students in person for the first time this school year, has been ever present in my mind. So here’s this:
Poem on April 13
Students will return to school on April 26 after learning at home exclusively for a full three quarters of a school year. Teachers will return to school on April 26 after teaching at home exclusively for a full three quarters of a school year. Some teachers will return to school on April 26 after teaching alone in their empty classrooms for a full three quarters of a school year. Some students and some teachers will enter a building this spring for the first time, literally, a building they have never stepped foot inside. Everyone will be masked. Everyone will keep at least three feet of distance. Masked teachers, it appears, might be wearing microphones so that the mumbling they do will be more or less comprehensible and that their voices will endure the three hours every afternoon when they are in the presence of live students. In the morning, beginning April 26, all students and teachers will continue learning and teaching in empty classrooms or at home, as they have done for a full three quarters of a school year. Each group of those computer kids will have a chance to join their teachers as real live kids–twice for each class every week in the afternoons in actual true-to-life classrooms. Teachers have to decide, after they have taught their computer kids and then some of those same students show up as real kids, what to do now with the live ones, knowing that they can’t theoretically give the live students something that the computer students didn’t have, in fairness. Although, we know, don’t we, that they will end up giving the live students something that the computer students didn’t have, by necessity and in actuality. Time. Opportunities to explain, to clarify, to demonstrate, to repeat, to unmuddy the botched computer lesson, to observe, to supplement, to look into the eyes of students and to hear their voices for the very first time. For students, time and opportunities to question, to write by hand, to speak, to be heard, to be helped, to be seen. Teachers also have to decide how they will continue to do the things they were already doing for a full three quarters of a school year with the three or four hours they are now dedicating to the live ones in the room. They weren’t sitting on the couch eating bonbons; they weren’t lounging by the pool or taking exhaustive afternoon naps or enjoying early afternoon cocktails. So the most difficult school year of their careers gets a little bit more difficult even as it gets a little more joyful at the same time. We’re banking on that last bit. This school year, almost more than anything else, needs a shot, maybe even two doses, of some serious joy, an infusion of happiness, a strong, exuberant finish.
Yesterday was the first official day of school for students in my district, the first time in my 32 year career that the school year would open with distance learning on account of a viral pandemic, and, as it turns out, the first time in my 32 year career that school would be canceled on the first day of classes for inclement weather, in this case, hazardous air, the result of the wildfires in Oregon. It was maybe the first time Oregonians have ever prayed for rain. The weather folks told us we would get some yesterday, but they began hedging, and, again, as it turns out, they were wrong about the rain. The air in Portland and in Milwaukie is still hazardous, but our district is open for business today, encouraged us all to work from home–as most of us would have done anyway.
So, today, we had the first day of school, each teacher meeting with one group of kids as part of a home-room-type situation, showing them the ropes of the google meets, laying down some technology expectations, and showing them some tips around navigating some new features of the google classroom. It’s a google world now, I tell you. I met with my 25 students, talked my way through a presentation, had exchanges with three or four kids who were brave enough to show video and unmute their mics–but for the most part, it was quiet, and I felt a little bit like I was talking to myself. But none of the things that freaked me out last night at one in the morning and kept me awake for three hours–you know, being interrupted, constantly chatted around, distracted by inappropriate things in the video feed or the instant message bar, students refusing to leave the meeting, me having to kick them out–NONE of that stuff happened. On the one hand, I was super pleased, but on the other hand, with so little feedback, the stuff teachers usually get, a sense of their style and personality, an opportunity to hear every kid’s voice at least a little, watching them interact and respond to each other, watching them smile or laugh at our attempts to put them at ease–I had no idea really about how any of it went! I meet with this same group tomorrow for round two of practicing The Google Meet. At least, today, my fears that this would be a train wreck were assuaged and I will go back at it tomorrow with far less trepidation. On Thursday and Friday of this week, academic classes begin in earnest. For me, two groups of 9th grade English and one group of seniors in IB Literature.
The prediction or the assessment or the outlook on the move to distance learning is that we will proceed in this manner at least until November, or for a full quarter of the school year. No one is expressing confidence that at this magical moment everything will have shifted. I think many of us are psyching ourselves up for the long haul. And many of us are pondering and musing about the way this shift away from traditional brick and mortar schools, out of necessity, will change the nature of schooling and education in irrevocable ways, forever, or at least, for the foreseeable future.
Necessity is the mother of invention, says Plato. It feels true that we are reinventing our schools. What’s unclear, unnervingly so, are the ultimate outcomes, either good or ill. I don’t know that anyone will ever be able to argue against the effectiveness of students and teachers physically in a room with each other, but I worry nonetheless about this particular trajectory. In my half glass full sort of orientation, I believe that there might be aspects of the brick and mortar model we could happily lose, and their loss would be, as Elizabeth Bishop writes, no great matter. Others we lose at our own risk and peril. The optimist in me believes we may at some not so distant day strike just the right balance. Meanwhile we soldier on. I’m happily, gratefully, doing the best I can with what I’ve got, chanting my new favorite mantra: better than nothing. It’s better than nothing. WAY better than nothing.
As a high school English teacher, I believe that on Friday, June 12, 2020, I experienced the strangest last day of school in the history of last school days. I mean, on the surface, it was somewhat unremarkable. I got out of bed at 8:30 a.m., took a shower, didn’t shave, moseyed on downstairs in a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, took my meds with a glass of orange juice, boiled some water for tea, and made myself a cheesey egg sandwich. By about 9:30 I was ready to read a bit of news, mostly bad, check the Facebook, and open up my work email. I checked in with my intern to see when she might be ready to input her grades, and she said 3:00 pm. I had some time to kill, during which I walked the dogs, did some writing, some household chores, listened to some music, and I made a goodbye video for a colleague who is leaving. My intern wasn’t actually ready until about 4:30, and it took us about a half an hour to finish that task. After 5:00 I started but did not finish the check out process in a google form, you know: what’s your summer contact info, are you holding on to your keys and your computer, is anything broken inside your “classroom,” have you turned in all of your shit, grades, fee reports, your professional development log, and a pdf of your semester grade book? And then I filled out Incomplete forms for the five (yes, only five) kids who hadn’t done any work before schools closed or afterwards.
I administered no finals. I looked at no student work. I didn’t even enter the schoolhouse. I saw or spoke to zero students. There were zero cheers of excitement from teenagers as the bell closed out their last final exam. There were no bells. No students were visibly stressing about their grades. I gave no grades. I said zero goodbyes. I gave beloved colleagues zero hugs. I attended zero end of the year staff parties. My final year-end conference with my supervising administrator didn’t happen. I submitted no student growth goal data. I didn’t clean up my classroom. I didn’t pack up my stuff. Almost nothing happened that would normally happen on a typical last day of the school year.
And today, Monday, in turn, was the strangest teacher work day at the end of the year in the history of end of the year teacher work days. We held a virtual staff meeting at 9:00 am, the purpose of which was primarily to say goodbye to four members of the staff who were leaving this year. So folks took turns saying nice things about them and it was lovely and moving, despite the sterility of the Google equivalent of Zoom. We couldn’t hug anyone or shake anybody’s hands, but in every case the sincerity of good feeling was palpable in the words of every individual who spoke about their beloved colleagues. After we said goodbye to our friends, distantly, our principal somewhat unceremoniously concluded the meeting, hanging around for a bit to answer any lingering checkout questions. I had a handful of things to do before I could officially wrap up the school year, you know: submit my summer contact info, let the head secretary know if I am holding on to my keys and my computer, if anything is broken inside my “classroom,” and whether or not I had turned in all of my shit, grades, fee reports, my professional development log, and a pdf of my semester grade book. Check, check, check.
I did not run around the building like a headless chicken. I did not spend most of my last days talking to good people that I wouldn’t see for two and a half months. I didn’t work my way through the last pile of final exams. I wasn’t the last one out of the door. I never even had to go through a door–at least, not that one, that big iron double door at the end of the hall by the parking lot. I didn’t stand there for a few minutes after those doors shut behind me wondering if I had forgotten anything. I did not, once I remembered that I had indeed forgotten something, have to put my stuff in the car and walk all the way around to the front of the building, walking all the way through the school again to pick up what I had forgotten, a thing, it goes without saying, that was likely not very important to begin with. One more time through the school–that’s probably what it was really about (but not this year), because really, as much as I love summer break, I love my schoolhouse, and truly, during the summer months, I miss it. I hope to return in September.
It’s been almost two full months since my last entry in A Journal of the Plague Year, although, as part of National Poetry Writing Month I wrote 30 poems, many of which were, by their nature and subject matter, a continuation of the journal in another form. During the month of May I took a little bit of a hiatus, posting to the blog just a couple of times, both times, not about living through a pandemic, but about music, one of the key components of my survival during this, and other, difficult times in life. My last post was on May 11th, and on May 25th George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis. Since then, words are difficult things to manage, and rather than writing, I have been reading and listening to the words of others, the words of people who are far better prepared or who can articulate the tragedy of our time more effectively than I ever could.
But today there is much to say, and I resume A Journal of the Plague Year in prose. There are things I would like to share, like the fact that I got a haircut this week, or that I’ve had a meal in a restaurant for the first time in almost three months, or that I’ve mowed the lawn a bunch of times now with my new Electric Mower, but all of this feels absolutely stupid and inconsequential. I mean, even if I had the most adorable puppy or kitten video ever known to humankind, I’d feel stupid about posting it now.
Even my recent facebook series of posting my most influential records from the turn of the 21st century onward, seems insignificant, superfluous, slight, insensitive. Except that: I am discovering that the music of the 21st century that has been most influential to me was often made by artists of color and by women. And that seems significant. As a child, and in my formative years, I listened to and enjoyed black music I heard on the radio, had tremendous respect for the black musicians who backed up Zappa’s band, and as a teenager and in my 20’s there were a handful of women who completely rocked my world, but it probably wasn’t until the 90’s, when I heard Fishbone and Rage Against the Machine for the first time and was exposed to the fierceness of Tori Amos, P.J. Harvey, and Liz Phair, that my record collection and musical proclivities began to diversify. My list of influential 21st century artists includes Brittany Howard, Janelle Monae, Anderson Paak, Childish Gambino, Mitski Miyawaki, Thao Nguyen, Neko Case, and Annie Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent. All of these artists are making music, I think, that I find challenging, beautiful, content-rich, music that expands the head and the heart, music that has taught me, I think, a lot about the world from perspectives that are radically different from my own. I am listening.
Watching the news of the protests, this incredible convulsion in our country, my emotions have been all over the map. I am outraged. I am disgusted. I am worried. I am terrified. I am inspired. I am hopeful. Yesterday, I was reading about the action in Washington D.C., that on the 9th day of protests, the largest crowd had assembled and the police had essentially disappeared. Something is shifting and I felt a tremendous surge of hope and tears welled up in my eyes. I believe this nation is at a crossroads and a turning point. Politically speaking, it has been the most devastating three and a half years of my life time, and it culminates with this pandemic, 100,000 American deaths and counting, and the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, the catalysts perhaps for what looks like might be a long overdue reckoning in this country with systemic racism and the overt oppression of people of color. We cannot go back. There is only forward. I am learning how to be an anti-racist. I am trying to find the best way to be an ally. It is perhaps, one more good reason not to retire from teaching.
In other Plague Year News: we are moving into the last week of the school year, and the 8th or 9th week of distance teaching and learning. It has been the most paradoxical of times. My seniors gone, having been cut loose almost immediately after the closure on March 13, and the gift of having an exceptionally capable and caring student teacher taking over my sophomores, I have had some time on my hands, the understatement of the year. I have counseled my intern to the best of my ability, I have participated in staff meetings and department meetings and professional learning communities, I have recorded a whole slew of poetry for the pandemic, I have immersed myself again in Neruda, I have helped advise the roll-out of a district on-line literary magazine, I have read some, and I have written a lot: 18 Journals of the Plague Year, 30 poems, a couple of music blogs, and I’ve been working somewhat in earnest on the draft of a new book, a memoir in micro chapters about religion and the lack thereof. I realize that I have been exceedingly lucky in all of this. Dickens said it best in the first sentence of A Tale of Two Cities. I don’t even have to quote it.
I wish you all health and safety. As has been customary at the conclusion of each journal in this series, I would like to leave you with a poem, one that seems appropriate for the moment, as much so now as when it was published in 1921. “America,” by Claude McKay.
Here’s a question.
What motivates a person to do a thing,
especially a thing that is purported to be
good for a person–let’s say, eat right,
exercise, learn an instrument, learn
an instrument well, dance, sing, paint,
or act well, and while we’re at it, add into the mix
all the academic endeavors:
write well, read well, understand
history, compute effectively, think
scientifically, abstractly, metaphorically,
not to mention the soft skills (a phrase
I hate), of building and fostering
strong and healthy relationships
to self and others?
Why would anyone do these,
all, admittedly, difficult things?
Our system of education is
designed to reward individuals for
doing these things with gold stars,
praise, and grades. We have conditioned
generations of students to do
purportedly good things for themselves
so that they can achieve a carrot
or avoid a stick. But we all know,
there are healthy people, musicians,
dancers, singers, painters, actors,
writers, historians, mathematicians,
scientists and philosophers who did
not get where they are because
they were afraid of the dunce cap
or the chair in the corner or the
C minus. They got good at their craft,
whatever that craft may have been,
because they wanted to, for its own
sake, because they knew it to be good
without anyone ever telling them
it was good. And here we are,
in Oregon, about to embark on
the grand experiment: learning
for the sake of learning. And we’re
doing it now, not because we have
had some grand epiphany about
the supremacy of intrinsic motivation,
but because we have no other
choice if we are to make the end
of the pandemic school year as
equitable and as fair as we can make it,
so as not to make a terrible situation
more heinous than it already is.
Some people will be helped
more than others or will grow
more than others, but no one will be
punished or hurt by frowny faces
and failures, and maybe, without
the kind of risk or peril they typically
experience in schools, they may plug in,
not because they have to,
but because they choose to,
because they see the value of the thing,
in this case learning, for its own sake.￼￼
Most importantly, I will not be able to BE with my seniors in IB English, not even remotely. I won’t see their faces, hear their voices, read their writing, laugh at their good humor, be in awe of their intelligence and kindness. But additionally, I will not be able to formally finish the Hamlet unit with my seniors. ￼I will not be able to read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead with them. I will not be able to read Death of a Salesman with my students. I will not be able to read Waiting for Godot with my students. I will not be able to ask them, what is your dream, what are you waiting for? ￼I will not be able to explore with them the six tenants of existentialism: existence precedes essence, time is of the essence, humanism is at the center, freedom and responsibility are key, ethics are paramount, and integrity is all. I will not be able to share with them the names that many of them will have heard for the first time in their lives: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Sartre. I will not be able to share with them the poems that would prepare them for Paper I. I will not be able to share with them the random questions about drama that would prepare them for Paper 2. I will not be able to commiserate with them as they prepare for and then spend four hours taking these brutal IB written examinations, which, while brutal, are still so much fun and provide so much rigorous reward. And afterwards, they will not be able to tell me how they felt well-prepared for the task, how they felt confident about their work. ￼Finally, I will not be able to see them make fools of themselves as I ask them for a final exam to write and perform a play of their two-year IB English experience.￼￼￼ I will not be able to do these things with my seniors. And all through the staff meeting this morning on Google Hangouts, I was fighting back tears, unsuccessfully.
For today’s poem, (#9), inspired by the NaPoWriMo website, I offer up a concrete poem, which is not really a concrete poem, but a poem about concrete, and improvised into a voice memo, and revised only slightly, because, god damn it.
#353: Concrete Poem
stupid and orange,
like my driveway.
You play ball
on the concrete,
in the park
or in the
If you fall,
inside your knee-
This is a concrete poem,
but it doesn’t look
anything like what
And finally, yesterday, I wrote a poem that stole a first line from Emily Dickinson, but today, that poem still haunts me, so I read it here–because I believe it helps.
We saw it coming. In fact, it’s not at all surprising. Nevertheless, I was surprised (!) to hear our governor’s announcement today that schools would remain closed until the end of the year. Distance Learning would be the modality that would take us through to the end. What I found most distressing in this news–and maybe this is just selfish of me–is that seniors, the class of 2020, so long as they were on track to graduate on March 13, will receive passing grades in their classes for the second semester. If I understand this correctly, it means that I am not expected to offer them any more learning opportunities. I am to teach no new concepts, I am to give and assess no new assignments. Essentially, we are done. Wait a minute, I say. We were not even finished with the unit! Can we not at least finish the flipping unit? I don’t have an answer to that question yet. I will ask it, but I predict that the answer will be no, you can’t even finish the flipping unit.
Meanwhile, it’s still national poetry month. I find myself looking through Emily Dickinson for a good first line to steal, as per the optional prompt today from NaPoWriMo. It wasn’t difficult to find the right one.
#352: A Poem Beginning with a Line from Dickinson
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
when I Learned I might never See
these young People again–
when I counted them in my head
and tried to Remember,
to record their little Lives–
what I knew of them–into
Long Term Memory, and I tried
to hear their Voices, too, as if we
were still in that Room together–
where we might be able to Say,
while looking into each other’s Eyes–
our Sadness, our Goodbyes.